Harold Hongju Koh knows exactly how much the children of immigrants are capable of achieving in a short period of time. “Through educational opportunities, [they] have extraordinary upward mobility in one generation,” says Koh. “My own family is proof of that.” His parents, who met after coming to the United States on student visas, had six U.S.-born children. Two are lawyers, two are doctors, and three have been university deans. Koh himself is the Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale University. Before this, he served for nearly four years as Legal Advisor to the U.S. Department of State. From 2004 to 2009, he was Dean of Yale Law School, and before that he served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Koh has also appeared on numerous occasions before the Supreme Court, including on behalf of Haitian and Cuban refugees. He was motivated to take these cases, he says, because of his family history.
We all felt that we had a debt to repay to America in our own time.
Koh’s father was in the United States representing Korea’s first democratically elected president in 1961, when that president was overthrown by a coup. Suddenly, the elder Koh was unemployed and exiled. When he mentioned this predicament to Walt Rostow, the U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor, Rostow called his brother, Eugene, who was then-Dean of Yale Law School. “Can you be there in a week?” Rostow asked Koh after hanging up the phone. And so the entire family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where Koh’s parents became the first Asians to teach at the university’s law school.
“This was an amazing act of grace,” says Koh of Rostow’s generosity. “And I never forgot it when I became dean 40 years later. We all felt that we had a debt to repay to America in our own time.” And so Koh became a lawyer, educator, and civil servant. In his long, distinguished career, he has seen scores of immigrants do the same. “It infuriates me to hear people saying that new Americans are somehow freeloaders or interested in exploiting the system,” he says. “The opposite is true. Because of what they have been given, they feel a special desire to give back.” Koh points to the many Haitian refugees he’s met, whose children fought for the U.S. Army in Iraq. “America is special,” he says. “E pluribus unum,”—out of many, one —“our diversity is the source of our strength.”
Koh wants immigration reform to acknowledge this. He says the DREAMers —undocumented minors who hope to become educated, engaged citizens—“deserve special consideration.” In 2014, Koh signed a letter supporting the legality of DACA, (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DAPA (the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans), programs that would grant renewable work permits and deportation exemptions for many undocumented immigrants.
“There has to be a path to citizenship for people who have lived here for long periods of time,” he says. “It makes no sense to send people back from their home to a country they’ve never lived in.” As important, Koh knows what these immigrants are capable of contributing, both economically and civically. To reject these people, he says, “is rejecting exactly the thing that makes Americans unique.”